The Delayed Uniform Civil Code
The Uniform Civil Code (UCC), a proposal to do away with all existing personal and religious laws in favour of a common civil law applicable to all Indian citizens irrespective of their religion and its subsequent acceptance by Indian citizens, is long overdue, awaiting its final approval since the British rule through to the present time. It proposes to include, among other things, monogamy, gender equality in inheritance and property, gender and religion-centered laws on Will, Charity, Guardianship and sharing of custody. The question of such a long delay in its formulation, modification and acceptance finds its answer in the historical analysis of various laws enacted through the British period down to the modern times.
Beginning with Lord William Bentinck’s (the Governor-General of India) Bengal Sati Regulation Act of 1829 (seeking to abolish the custom of Sati) to Lex Loci Report (October 1840, seeking to bring uniformity in laws relating to crimes, evidence and contract) to the Queen’s Proclamation (October 1859), all paid no heed to the necessity of including matters of personal laws of Hindus and Muslims – as also of other communities in India – in the sphere of Uniform Codified Laws. The latter law, that is the Queen’s Proclamation, resorted to absolute non-interference in religious matters, such as, inheritance, succession, marriage, divorce, adoption, religious ceremony et cetera. This tendency of excluding matters of personal laws had its roots in a kind of fear – the fear of stern opposition, which the British rulers wanted to avoid. They could have brought such matters, too, within the ambit of Civil Laws enacted at different times, but that was not their prime concern.
However, the Hindu Law, because of its ease of implementation and acceptance, got preference over the Muslim Personal Law (based on Sharia), which because of its non-uniformity in application at lower courts, led to the customary laws. These laws were comparatively more discriminatory against women who were often restricted from inheritance of property and dowry settlements. Finally, the Sharia law of 1937 was passed, allowing Indian Muslims to be governed by Islamic laws on marriage, divorce, adoption, succession, inheritance etc.
Post independent India saw the enactment of the Hindu code bill of 1956, comprising of the Hindu Marriage Act (1955), the Succession Act, the Minority & Guardianship Act and the Adoption & Maintenance Act. On the other hand, the status of Muslim women remained more or less stagnant. Right from the beginning, Indian governments have favoured the formulation of a UCC based primarily on gender equality.
The Shah Bano case (1985) was a turning point when the woman, having been divorced orally, sought relief from the supreme court in matters of maintenance; the court gave verdict in Shah Bano’s favour. This was challenged by her husband and the orthodox Muslims; the then government, under pressure, reversed the supreme court decision in a special session of the parliament. The ensuing furore across the country divided opinions into groups – the Congress and the Muslim conservatives versus the Hindus, the Jains, the Buddhists, the Sikhs, the Paris (the Right) and the Left.
The proponents of the UCC favour it on grounds of Article 44, unity and integrity of the nation, abolition of polygamy and unilateral divorce, gender equality etc. On the other hand, the opponents look at it as a threat to religious freedom, to be against secularism etc.
However, the UCC Bill has been introduced thrice in the parliament by the present government – the first in November 2019 by Narayan Lal Panchariya, only to be withdrawn for amendments, and the second in March 2020 by Kirodi lal Meena. In response to a plea filed in the Supreme Court, a draft of the proposed UCC is being prepared which would be displayed on government site for nationwide debate and feedback.”